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Der blinde Knabe, D833

First line:
O sagt, ihr Lieben, mir einmal
April 1825; published as Op posth 101 No 2
author of text
translator of text

'For the sighted complacently to put smooth words into the mouth of the blind, and make a comfortable song of unimagined disaster is a sentimentality and an impertinence.' Thus Richard Capell castigates Schubert's age which was more susceptible to pathos, and more moved by melodrama than our own more 'politically correct' century. When this song was performed by Vogl accompanied by the composer it drew tears from great pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel who proceeded to improvise on it to great effect. As a child of his time Hummel responded unashamedly to this scenario combining childhood and tragedy in the same way the average Victorian reader was touched by the death of Dickens's Little Nell. No doubt he was also moved by the beauty of Schubert's music (and one's heart goes out to Hummel for having been one of the very few real musical celebrities of Schubert's day to be receptive to the composer's magic), but those tears were also doubtless occasioned by Vogl's impersonation of the blind boy which was probably completely 'over the top' by the histrionic and vocal acting standards of our own day. Although Capell was right to point out that Cibber's words (along the lines of 'what you've never had, you never miss') were in bad taste, Schubert's music seems to soften the overt process of tear-jerking to show us the same inner radiance and bravery against the odds which make the celebrated Frühlingsglaube such an overwhelmingly powerful song. In that work the singer (though it seems to me not the accompanist) is certain that spring will come and that everything will change for the better; we who are listening on the outside doubt that this may truly be so, but we are touched by the optimism and faith of a rare spirit who is probably destined to further disappointment. This is no more or less than a song encapsulation of the composer's own refusal to become cynical and bitter in the face of tragedy. Frühlingsglaube, to be appreciated to its full hauntingly sad effect, has to be performed as a song which is full of brave hope. In the same way, the blind boy's pride, strength and independence are what emerge from Schubert's setting, rather than a lament for his handicap. It is left to the listener (like Hummel) to be moved by the gulf between his pity for the youngster and the boy's own unaccountable lack of self-pity.

The prelude of the opening bars seems to grope for the light. The four-note arpeggio figure is repeated and laid out in such a way that even the rhythm is uncertain; the ear can easily be tricked into believing that the first semiquaver is a weak upbeat rather than a strong downbeat—an effect of deliberate disorientation, a tonal analogue for blindness via the workings of the ear. After two beats we hear the other feature of the introduction which pervades the whole song—two quavers played 'mezzo staccato' in the bass. This rectifies the rhythmical trompe l'oreille of the first two beats as it pulls their wayward ramblings into line; entirely appropriately these hollow knocking sounds suggest the tapping of the blind boy's stick which helps him to get his bearings.

The vocal line opens somewhat tentatively, the tune punctuated by rests as if the singer is searching for words—in fact he is searching for the definition of a word. When he names this concept, known to him only by the name 'Licht' we leap out of the dark from the F of 'ist's' to the E flat above supported by a poignant dominant seventh; the elusive word glows with a halo of mystery like a distant and unknown star. Throughout the song, when the tapping is absent, the voice clings to the tenor line in the pianist's left hand at the interval of a tenth. This suggests physical contact with another surface, and that the boy is carefully feeling his way through the music as if guided by a hand rail. For the second verse we modulate into the dominant; the sun's music consists of a line of deliberately monotonous C's (for the boy, the sun neither rises nor sets) and in the third verse on the phrase 'Tag und Nacht' the traditional musical analogues for light and darkness are reversed with night sung on a note both higher and longer than that for day. The shrinking appoggiature sequence at 'ich weiss nicht wann, noch wie' (Verse 2) and at the similar passage at 'und trag es mit Geduld' (Verse 4) somehow suggest that the singer is small of stature or frail, perhaps even that he has a limp. It is the music of the third verse, however, which lifts the song on to a different plane. The double-dotted rhythms of 'so glücklich' and 'so reich' show a glimmer of defiance from someone who is king of his own world. The echo in the major key 'ein armer blinder Knab' is one such tenderness and compassion that it seems that it is no longer being sung by the protagonist who, in any case, does not understand how 'poor' he is. Rather has the composer quietly stepped into the picture to give the boy his own embrace and blessing.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992


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